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1990: one day in Albania

Nearly five years ago, the author spent in July 1990 some hours in Albania. The article was first published in Ocotber of the same year in »Search«, the publication of the Anglican Church in Zurich with the title »Playing at God«

»The name of this new town is Ksamil«, she said, giggling, »and it is the only town in our country without a cemetery - because nobody has died yet!«; the sort of statistic , we all thought, which would be more appropriate in Transylvania; but then - the train of thought continued - surely there was not much difference between Count Dracula and the ever-present - if dead - Enver Hoxha (rhymes with dodger). Even though we had heard that there were no churches whatsoever in this strictly atheistic land, the cemetery anecdote took us by surprise.

The trip from Corfu had been unexpectedly rough once we were free of the narrow channel between that island, where Odysseus had briefly courted Nausicaa, and mainland Illyria, known to its people as Shqipëri, the »land of the eagles« once ruled by King Zog, the bird; our destination was Albania.

Once visas were to hand, the »apéritif« was the Custom-House Declaration where »Mblemer« (shades of emblem) means »surname« and a question is asked which by its spelling, betrays nothing but isolation: »Do you posses any of the goods mentioned below, tranmiter and eceiver radio sets, Camera Recorder, Television set, Refrigarator, ashing machine, and other house Comodities, watches Drugs, Printed metter cuch as leters, Books Magazines, Different currencies, explozives« (sic); followed by a list headed »King of Goods«.

We had time, as the good ship Petrakis set a course for Sarandë, past the one-monk-monastery of Pantocrator, perched on the highest peak of Corfu, now literally straddled by a horrendous television pylon, to muse on what had gone before.

Anyone who has been to Corfu will know that required reading for the island is Lawrence Durell's »Prospero's Cell«, and one can still visit the house where he wrote it, now, and possibly already then - a sturdy but scruffy taverna with a splendid view across the bay at Kalami. In fact it is three books in one: the history which Ivan Zarian was longing to write but couldn't; the volume which Count D. should have written but was not inclined to, and the account - in diary form - which was eventually published.

Durrel tells the story of the Cypriot shepherd, later St. Spyridon who saved the island on many occasions and after whom most Korfiote males are named »Spyros«. He also records the Count's erudite theory that Corfu (Corcyra) was the island of Prospero in »The Tempest« of Shakespear - hence the title of the book. »Twelfth Night«, after all, was set in Illyria.

Another cruel little tale is of two lovers during the Turkish occupation, he an Albanian Moslem, she a Greek. During a poltitcal crisis they were separated but regularly signalled to each other respectively from Cape Stiletto ant the islet of Govino. Then, following her sudden death, the girl's fire was no longer lit. For many years thereafter on the second Sunday of every month, the boy's faith flickered across the bay to the unresponsive Govino headland, ... so near and yet so far.

First impressions, as we arrived at the port of Sarandë in Albania, were of hundreds of little boys (not one little girl to be seen) staring at us from the beach: stares which were neither friendly not unfriendly, primitive animal stares; being unaware that they were staring. Shiny blue James-Bond-speedboats of the Sigurimi set apart from the rusting hulks of everything else. Dozens of posters and exhortation of (the late) Enver Hoxha and of his successor Ramiz Alia, crudely designed to render morality and religion superflous: the wayside Calvary of Christendom transformed into a maxim of the Thought Police.
The head customs officer, a handsome, sinister individual, relieved some of us of the odd newspaper and novel (»to be returned after I have read it«) and we stepped ashore.

Our link-person from Albturist was Miranda, a pretty blonde English teacher from Tirana, in her early twenties, with the bloom of unspoiled humour in her eyes. She steered us with great charm around ancient Buthrotum (Butrint) with its timeless stoneworks changing shape under the successor cultures of Corinth and Corcyra, Rome and Byzantium. »It's all Greek to me«; »This must be a statue of the goddess Miranda« chuckled Miranda.
She told us how the latter day Italian occupiers had begun excavation in order to prove that Albania was part of the Roman heritage but , on discovery of Illyrian inscriptions carved in ancient Greek characters, had only succeeded in enhancing Albanian nationalism.

Scruffy little boys muttering »Goom« (for chewing gum we supposed) and »Stylo« (pen) hovered about.
We were shown a group of »volunteer students«, hacking painfully away with picks and shovels at an ancient provisions room in part of the sprawling archaeological complex (who, after we had passed, and I had crept back to see, were already packing up and moving off - possibly to the next heroic demonstration).

»We have a problem«, said Miranda enigmatically as our vintage Albturist bus wound its way north up the single track road back to Sarandë, »nobody in Albania may own a car«. Bicycles may be bought with leks, the local currency, but motor-cycles may only be purchased with foreign currency sent from relations abroad. »Everybody in Albania travels by bus«. A glance at the town bus terminal later in the day, replete with its creaking and clanking Russian and Chinese leviathans, bore this statement out. »Our problem«, I said to Miranda, who never had been outside Albania, »is that everybody seems to own a car«.

Diminutive 19th century peasants idled under scrawny roadside olive bushes, a contrast to the 500-year-old gnarled monsters regimentally set out under the Venetian olive-planting initiative in Corfu only four kilometres across the narrow channel to the west. Fields of sweet corn and tomatoes stretched out around Ksamil which also produces water melons »for export« said Miranda; wooden mussel-farms in the upper waters of Lake Butrintit, »the lower levels are contaminated by natural gas«; rice paddies along the banks of the Pavllo, south of Buthrotum, »our country is self-sufficient in food«, said Miranda.

A ten-course meal - obscenely extravagant and inappropriate in a country of subsistence diet - awaited us back at the hotel Butrinti in Sarandë, accompanied by the nostalgic singing of two supremely unspoilt tenors, straight of the 60's or earlier. The high point of the entertainment was a dance group with the men cavorting beautifully and proudly through traditional country dance routines. Initial impressions of effeminate gestures were gradually suppressed by the realization that one was watching something in character with 450 years of Turkish occupation, after the death of Skanderbeg, the national hero, when men - not women - were the flaunted sex. The women dancers provided little more than decorative accompaniment.

A walk around Sanrandë, purchase of a loaf of bred and a souvenir box, the only things our leks would buy from the otherwise empty shelves, and our visit drew to a close. The whole town, it seemed, waved us away from the quay.

What were we left with? How could such a culture-gap be bridged? A scenario of no religion, no logic, no moralitiy, with the artful Hoxha in the role of God Almighty. There was a link; Miranda supplied it: the »Christian« name of her companion, the Greek/Italian interpreter - a member of the Greek minority in the south of the country - was Spyros. And Miranda, she told us proudly, was of course Prosperos's doughter.

Antony McCammon

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